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Proposed film studio complex in Fayette would become Georgia’s largest

A group of metro Atlanta investors have submitted plans to build what is believed to be the largest film studio complex in Georgia.

The studio will open next year in the north-central part of Fayette County on 288 acres, initially with five sound stages. The investment group, Rivers Rock LLC, is in talks with Pinewood Studios Group in London to run the complex once it opens in the spring of 2014. “The Hobbit” and the Harry Potter and James Bond film series are among the cache of films in Pinewood Studio’s stable of movies.

Opening with an initial 305,000 square feet of space, the Fayette complex will dwarf other area film studios because it will have a lot of room to expand, according to Matt Forshee, president and chief executive of the Fayette County Development Authority, which has been working for a year to get the project to fruition.

As it stands now, EUE/Screen Gems’ 33-acre facility in the nearby Lakewood area of Atlanta is one of the largest stages in the country at 37,500 square feet, according to state film office data. It has a total of five sound stages, offering more than 150,000 square feet of production space.

The Fayette complex will be near the Fayette Piedmont Hospital at the intersection of Sandy Creek Road and Veterans Parkway, also known as the West Fayetteville Bypass. The Fayette facility would be expanded in future phases as demand for sound stages and film production space increases. The initial investment is expected to be about $20 million, with construction slated to begin this spring. In addition to the five sound studios, there will be mill shops, special effects facilities, and production and administrative offices. Forshee’s office has been working with Rivers Rock and Pinewood Studios for more than a year to bring the project to fruition.

In addition to churning out films, the state-of-the-art complex in Fayette will at some point serve as a training ground for new filmmakers, lighting and grip professionals and other film industry workers. That training is a partnership between the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees Local 479 and Clayton State University, which is in the process of opening a film school. The state ends up having to bring in film workers from North Carolina, California and Louisiana when productions are done here.

“It’s designed to meet current needs of the film industry in Georgia. There’s a need for crew members,” said Janet Winkler, executive director of Clayton State University’s continuing education department, which will oversee the new film school.

Wednesday’s announcement comfortably catapults the region to the forefront of filmmaking in Georgia, which did more than $3.5 billion in film work last year, up from about $244 million when the state passed its Entertainment Industry Investment Act in 2008 to provide tax incentives to film and TV production companies.

In that time, the Southside has emerged as a strong contender when Hollywood has come calling to do films in Georgia. Scenes from the movie “Joyful Noise,” a comedy starring Queen Latifah and Dolly Parton, were shot in Fayette, as was “Drop Dead Diva” and “The Walking Dead,” two hit TV shows. The latest “Hunger Games” movie recently finished filming in nearby Clayton County, and the Oscar-nominated movie “Flight,” starring Denzel Washington, was filmed in Clayton as well. Many of those productions were filmed in converted facilities with less than ideal conditions.

Fayette’s access to Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport and its quality of life and available workforce helped the county land the deal, Fayette Commission Chairman Steve Brown said Wednesday.

“This development, if it goes through, will have a major regional impact not just in Fayette County but the metro Atlanta area — the Southside in particular. It will also provide educational opportunities,” Brown said. “It’s huge.”

Aside from being a place to make movies, Fayette will have invariably created a solution to a longstanding controversy by snaring the studio complex. The complex will be near the infamous West Fayetteville Bypass, a thoroughfare that drew a lot of criticism from some residents who felt it was built in an area of the county that doesn’t have traffic problems. The complex also is near an empty school. It’s a carte blanche canvas on which Hollywood can create.

“The county built a road no one wanted, and the Board of Education built a school that houses no students. We’re taking what’s a major lemon and making superb lemonade out of it,” Brown said.

While details are sketchy, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution obtained the plans dubbed “Project Stargate” submitted to the Fayette planning commission Tuesday. The 13-page proposal calls for rezoning 288.5 acres of farmland to general business use for a “media production and educational campus.” The land is currently owned by ARC Enterprises, Sandy Creek Holdings and Fayette Property Holdings.

“The studios will provide independently owned media companies a full range of production services to cater to every aspect of on-site filming,” the proposal notes. A public hearing will be held on the matter March 7.

Unlike filmmaker Tyler Perry’s studio, which is considered proprietary, the Fayette facility will be open to anyone wanting to film in Georgia.

“It’ll operate much like a convention center,” Forshee said.

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